Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Crude World

[Peter Maas. Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.]

This is a journalistic look at the global oil industry. The author is a liberal U.S. American journalist who writes for The New York Times Magazine, as well as other outlets like The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and Mother Jones. Given that, you get what you might expect, more or less. The writing is lively and punchy, though given to occasional indulgences in a particular journalistic flavour of attempted cleverness; there is some quite interesting and useful reporting; and the (often implicit) political framework used to stitch all of the pieces together is pretty lacking.

Each chapter in the book -- they have titles like "Plunder" and "Greed" and "Mirage" -- focuses on a particular place where oil is extracted, from Equatorial Guinea to Texas to Saudi Arabia to Venezuela. In each of these places, the author has interviewed relevant sources and often visited relevant sites. His overarching theme is the way in which countries with significant oil resources tend to suffer harmful social and economic (and of course environmental) impacts. Corruption, dictators, big corporations, and U.S. American war-making are all named and deplored at various points. All of which is good, as far as it goes, but the context in which these anecdote-filled stories are told is pretty thin.

For instance, the chapter on Iraq is clearly not supportive of the invasion, though it falls rather more often than I would like into the liberal anti-war rhetoric that emphasizes bungling in the execution of this particular war rather than sticking to the basic wrongness of invading other people's countries and killing lots and lots of people. It is organized around investigating whether it was really a "war for oil." While it makes admirably short work of the laughable assertion that oil had nothing to do with it, it goes on to set up a straw person by assuming the most simplistic possible understanding of "war for oil" and goes for the gotcha by showing it was more complicated than that, without actually dealing with the issue of oil-in-a-larger-context in a particularly complex way.

Or take the chapter on Venezuela. Unlike much of the mainstream media in the U.S., even its more liberal wing, this book isn't full of knee-jerk Chavez hating -- some understated Chavez mocking, perhaps, but not hating. Its basic point that the dependence of Chavez's project on oil and the particular ways in which that money is being used create some serious issues for the future, particularly during times of lower prices and after Venezuela's reserves begin to dry up, is worth some serious reflection and probably touches on some core issues facing the Bolivarian revolution. But its conclusions about the doomed character of the Venezuelan experiment is based on a very shallow look at what is actually being done with the money, how social relations are or are not being shifted, what movements within Venezuela are saying and doing, and the larger context of the Latin American revolt against neoliberalism. I don't know enough to offer any definitive pronouncements either, but if I was going to try I know there is a lot more that I would need to investigate and talk about. Despite the author seeming to tilt towards the more progressive side of liberalism, there is something of this chapter that smacks of an age-old liberal attitude towards anything to their left, which involves performing sympathy, predicting tragedy, and being complicit with forces actively working to make it so.

The Conclusion, which responds to the reader's inevitable questions about what to do about all of the social and ecological damage done by the oil industry, and the corruption and power and ruthlessness of its acolytes, fits right in with the rest of the book. All of its ideas about technological advancement, political will, changes in social expectations, and initiatives promoting transparency are good as far as they go, but they don't adequately deal with the ways in which the problems are actually socially produced and the ways in which change actually happens (and the kinds of obstacles faced in implementing changes that threaten key elements of capital accumulation).

Anyway, this book is worth reading for the reporting, if it is an area that interests you, just try not to pay too much attention to the analysis.

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1 comment:

Scott said...

I should clarify that last sentence...the stuff about oil deforming the political and social life of the countries where it is found is okay -- again with the disclaimer I used several times during the post, "as far as it goes" -- but the larger context in which the book sets that is less illuminating.